If that last sentence gets your Tea Party bells ringing, it should—and if you thought people on the Internet wasted far too much energy sussing out Eminem’s secret-society affiliations, do a search for “Obama” plus “Illuminati.” There is a strong religious-right flavor to much of the talk of pop-Illuminism, a barely concealed fear that Lady Gaga and Jay-Z are agents of the Antichrist, here to subjugate the masses and turn “our” children homosexual and/or black. Illuminati suspicions attach, in some degree, to virtually every music star—Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, even Celine Dion! Nevertheless, it seems more than mere happenstance that Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are the biggest targets: a politically outspoken, wildly rich black charmer and a gender-bending, pro-gay weirdo. The pop-Illuminati hunt is a throwback to the time when parent groups would scan the music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath for hidden occultist mojo, but given a Fox News-era culture-war update.
In a counterintuitive twist, however, Illuminati paranoia turns out to grip not just those on the far right who fear a godless/black/gay assault, but also those at the other end of the political spectrum. On the (black) far left, abiding fears of control and co-optation by the (white) power structure find voice via Illuminati theories. (Michael Kelly used the term “fusion paranoia” to describe this strange left-right overlap.) Mobb Deep’s Prodigy has been hip-hop’s most outspoken critic of Illuminati shenanigans since he rapped “Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body/ Secret society, tryina keep they eye on me,” in 1995; the video for his 2008 song “Illuminati” depicts a dystopian nightmare of omnipresent surveillance and national I.D. cards. Despite blog posts he’s written about secret-elite rituals in which babies are burned sacrificially, Prodigy distances himself from the frivolous fringe looking for Illuminati on the Billboard Hot 100: “Jay-Z’s a fucking crumb compared to these niggas,” he said in an April interview, dismissing the chatter about Illuminati pop stars as “dumb.” Prodigy locates his anti-Illuminism within greater traditions of black agitation (his eyes were opened, he says, by the writings of the radical Dwight "Dr." York) and social responsibility: “I was doing bullshit, buying mad diamonds … promoting the wrong type of lifestyle, but I snapped out of that shit, got myself together, and refocused on what this shit is supposed to be: Like, what are you trying to promote to the people?” Prodigy has spoken of his preference for Ron Paul over Barack Obama, and he is aligned in this regard with other rap gadflies like KRS-One and Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, both of whom appear in the film The Obama Deception, casting the president as a minion of the New World Order.
The New Yorker’s David Remnick observed in his 2005 piece about Katrina conspiracy theories that they belonged to a long history of such theories (AIDS as weapon of a CIA-orchestrated genocide; Tropical Fantasy sodas as tool of a KKK sterilization plot; etc.). These theories, he wrote, represent “counter-narratives” that indicate and express, however fancifully, the very fraught place that blacks still occupy in American society, despite popular narratives of social progress, the growing black middle-class, and so on.
In a similar way, Illuminati paranoia within rap circles counters and deflates hip-hop’s celebratory master narrative of outsize black success; the Illuminati theory, in this iteration, is symptomatic of broader anger and alienation. The only way Jay-Z, or any black man, could become so successful in America, the thinking goes, would be to capitulate to, and become a pawn of, the people who have always called the shots. When Kanye West raps, on “Power,” “In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen,” he makes an implicit complaint about the limits of black mobility. Ironically, some pop truthers took the line, along with the song’s symbol-rich video, as a confession of Illuminati affiliation.
West has addressed the Illuminati rumors, teasingly, on Twitter. “Is illuminati and devil worshipping like the same thing ... do they have a social network that celebs can sign up for?” he tweeted, adding, “Question... can you devil worship on the new iphone??? LOL!!!” West’s jokes point to one glaring reason why the pop-Illuminati theory has proven so catchy: It’s great fun to turn the act of listening to pop into a symbolism Easter-egg hunt worthy of The DaVinci Code. And why can’t West and Jay-Z have some fun in return? West doubtless knew that the “Eye of Horus” was central to Illuminati lore when he commissioned a gigantic Horus necklace. Jay-Z must have been aware that flashing the image of a Baphomet-ish skull in the “On to the Next One” video would titillate theorists. Recently, West has taken to wearing a variety of garments featuring Rottweiler designs. Spotting the same dogs in the artwork for the Watch the Throne single “H.A.M.,” one Illuminati truther connected them, naturally, to “Hades’ hellhounds.” The rottweilers are, it happens, a recurring motif in the current Givenchy line, in which Rottweiler T-shirts sell for $265. Illuminati members, one hopes, get a discount.